Home / Film / Feature Articles / Blonde Poison: The Femme Fatale in Basic Instinct (1992) and Vertigo (1958) 

Blonde Poison: The Femme Fatale in Basic Instinct (1992) and Vertigo (1958) 

What do you get when you cross a cop with unresolved issues with an ice-cool blonde with hidden motives? Did I mention the cop falls hopelessly in love with her (or is it an obsession?) against his better judgment?  What you get is Vertigo (1958) or Basic Instinct (1992) or maybe you get both? One most certainly inspired the other decades later.

Kim Novak – and later, Sharon Stone – both draped in a white coat, platinum blonde hair pulled back in a stylish chignon, pale and interesting, aloof, sophisticated yet cunning and cold. Both their characters are incredibly destructive to men and ultimately lead them down a path of unravelling. Both unhinged male leads get sucked into their lethal blonde’s worlds, obsessively tailing them through the windy streets of San Francisco until they spiral out of control with devastating consequences. Both films also feature the same archetypal supporting female roles – former lovers trying to rekindle what they once had with their leading men. In both scenarios we see James Stewart and Michael Douglas neglect the former in favour of their obsession with the intoxicating yet troubled blonde. However, one disparity is that Stone’s character, Catherine, is more of a mastermind in the manipulation and a highly intellectual predator, whereas Novak’s character, (Judy or Madeleine?) is a pawn in a man’s plan.

James Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo (1958)

 “What are you gonna do? Charge me with smoking?”

Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven’s psychosexual thriller is visually and stylistically referencing images from a movie the director was clearly inspired by – Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Various cues that Verhoeven reappropriates include the San Francisco setting, the focus on male obsession and the homages to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic music in Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score. Although hyper-sexualized, Basic Instinct screams Hitchcock from the rooftops and yet the movie is also one long intense sexual power struggle. Sex and violence are the key components of the film – cementing its reputation as one of the great cinematic guilty pleasures. It’s an engaging, titillating thriller and is rightly considered a neo-noir masterpiece. Appropriately taking its virtues from its female protagonist, Catherine Trame, it is suitably dark and moody. And embracing Catherine’s trademark cocky smirk, the film leaves audiences just as seduced as Michael Douglas’ hapless character – if not more so.

Over twenty-five years ago Stone, a relatively unknown actress known best for Total Recall (1990), introduced filmgoers to this murderous vixen – a beautiful novelist and suspected serial killer who stabs her victims with an ice pick while engaged in animalistic, frenzied sex. At first, top-billed star Michael Douglas thought that an established actor should take on the role of Catherine. Julia Roberts was the first of many actresses suggested – however she like the many others (13+!) baulked at the nudity required. As luck would have it, Stone had no such hang-ups and her screen test was so good it won over Douglas. As they say, the rest is history. Stone created something truly special in her performance with a seductive mix of arrogance, intelligence and class that is as intoxicating today as it was back in 1992. Stone owns this role; she is what we keep coming back for as she lights up the screen. She’s beautiful and smart. We suspect that there must be a catch… and we spend the rest of the movie searching for it.

With Stone hijacking centre stage, Douglas was unintentionally manoeuvred into a supporting role. Born into acting royalty, Douglas has had a steady and diverse career that started in 1966, including independent films, blockbusters, stage and TV work. Also a former race car driver, he was able to perform most of his own hair-raising driving stunts throughout the movie.

Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct (1992)

Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct (1992)

The Joe Esterhaus-penned screenplay had first surfaced in the 1980s. It eventually prompted a bidding war, selling for a reported $US3million. Even before its release, Basic Instinct gave rise to biting negativity, heated discussions and public outcry due to its apparent sexuality and graphic depiction of violence. This didn’t hinder the film becoming one of the most financially successful films of the 1990s – and in the process, spearheading the portrayal of sexuality in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

The film score for Basic Instinct was composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith noted for such movies as The Omen (1976) and Alien (1979). Goldsmith often stated that due to Verhoeven’s creative urgings the task was one of the most challenging he ever undertook. Ultimately, he thought of it as one of his best scores and garnered multiple award nominations for the work. I agree. You can’t separate the score from the movie, it’s nothing short of phenomenal and this also rings true for Bernard Hermann’s work on Vertigo. How much of these films’ famous atmosphere is owed to Herrmann and Goldsmith? Both Basic Instinct and Vertigo have a beautiful marriage of images and music and like any true love, one can’t be without the other.

Basic Instinct never plays fair with its audience; from the opening scene to the final shot, many viewers experienced a sense of having been cheated. Is Catherine guilty or has she been framed? This is the central theme of Basic Instinct, and the film never solves it. It seems wildly appropriate that in the end Basic Instinct teases and screws us with the same efficiency that the film’s femme fatale handles her victims. Some critics view Basic Instinct as nothing more than third-rate Hitchcock, others as flashy, raunchy and schlocky, some say it’s a husk of ridiculous ploys – but I disagree and believe Basic Instinct to be the gold standard of erotic thrillers. And who knows – as the extreme content of Hitchcock’s aborted KALEIDOSCOPE project displays, this could have been the type of movie that Hitchcock might have made if he could’ve gotten away with it.

“Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?”

In contrast to Basic Instinct’s box-office result, Alfred Hitchcock’s hallucinatory masterpiece Vertigo had a lukewarm reception upon release in 1958 – however, over the years it has slowly climbed in stature to now be considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Audiences were engrossed from the get-go; the opening titles’ circling spiral imagery – which led into hypnotic dream sequences, a general sense of unease and dread in even the most banal of situations and a dramatic final scene.

Vertigo (1958)

Another mysterious blond, Madeleine (played by the intoxicating Kim Novak) is behaving rather strangely. James Stewart towers as Scottie – a former police detective who was forced into early retirement because of an incident in the line of duty which has caused him to develop an irrational fear of heights along with a heavy dose of vertigo. He has been hired to follow Madeleine and report back his findings to her husband. Stewart, a nerdy, gangly tower of a man, had an awkwardness that seemed at odds with many of his characters – and made him all the more interesting to watch. He was one of the rare few actors who could emote by just a slight crinkle to the forehead or a shift with his glance – that voice, those eyes. Stewart built his big screen reputation as the every-man. Among his many other dazzling roles, he worked with Hitchcock on four occasions, their highly regarded actor-director collaboration starting with Rope in 1948 and concluding with Vertigo a decade later.

It becomes clear when watching Vertigo why after 60 years this film is considered a cinematic masterwork. Hitchcock uses a complicated story, interesting layered characters, deliberate pacing, extravagant visual detail and the use of colour by dying frames to create moods. Every frame is perfect. Vertigo is not only Hitchcock’s most discussed and dissected films, it’s also the type of movie that becomes more impressive with each subsequent viewing. Hitch is assuredly at the top of his game, introducing us to the brilliant zoom-forward-track-back camera techniques to induce the feeling of vertigo onto his unsuspecting audience. The film works on a psychological level; it points out that some men would rather have an unavailable, beautiful woman than a woman who is completely available. This is demonstrated with Judy, who tries to make Scottie love her for who she is and not because she reminds Scottie of the unattainable Madeleine. The key element to why Vertigo works so well, in the end, is the qualities it shares with Basic Instinct – the cast (Novak played her coldness and detachment beautifully to Stewart’s sense of fun, warmth and alluring charm) and the masterful control of the tension that rarely lets up.

Appearance is everything especially in both of these haunting tales of male obsession. After frolicking about on the dance floor in Basic Instinct with femme fatale Stone, Douglas made V-neck knits an instant trend in the ‘90s for young men.  34 years earlier in Vertigo, Stewart had his own take on the look – only with his V-neck cut high and with a white shirt underneath worn casually open. He looks sophisticated, classy and yet relaxed. When Stewart is all dolled up sitting in a chair with his leg casually swung over the other, he’s the living, breathing epitome of cool and style.

Basic Instinct’s colour palette was mostly neutral with beiges creams and whites specifically for Stone’s wardrobe which added an air of class and understated chic. With loose-fitting throws, roll neck woolly jumpers, casually slung loose coats and let’s not forget the Hermes silk scarf – the focal point of the movie’s plot. Stone looks almost warm, snugly and inviting which is in complete contrast to her ice cold character. Her famous white dress and coat with her blonde hair scooped back into a stylish French roll says ‘devil in a white dress’ and screams Novak from Vertigo. Her look is not typical of a femme fatale. Stone wears pale loose fitting clothes – not tight fitting with vampish colours as Novak did in Vertigo – along with plain knitwear and very few accessories.  Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick created Sharon Stone’s interpretation of Catherine as purposely ambiguous, “We are always questioning did she or didn’t she do it. Catherine was deliberately the icy blond, similar to a Hitchcockian character”.

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

The acclaimed wardrobe department icon, Edith Head, designed Novak’s clothing and just like Scotty we find ourselves obsessed with her overall look. Edith Head once said: “To be a good designer in Hollywood, one has to be a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dress-maker, pin cushion, historian, nursemaid and purchasing agent too.” It’s known that Novak wasn’t the easiest person to dress on Vertigo giving Edith Head a good work out and was unhappy with some of the wardrobe, specifically the dove grey suit and black pumps we have all grown to love. Novak believed the suit washed her out and the style was too restrictive as Novak didn’t like to wear bras. Unlike Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, this particular outfit required undergarments! The dove grey suit was designed to specific instructions by Hitchcock. He wanted the suit to be grey because it was washed-out and he was keen that the character looks as if she had just emerged from the San Francisco fog. It’s a crucial device used at the beginning of the story to transition Novak from one persona to the next within the film. Then there is the unforgettable image of the famous black and white assemble that reflects a chic understated class and also hints at Novak’s dual personalities.

Interestingly in Basic Instinct, the outfit has been transformed into an all-white assemble perhaps giving us a clue from the very beginning that Stone’s character has no dual or hidden softer side. When Stewart see’s Novak for the first time she’s aloof in an evening gown all brightly jewelled in colour and heavy in accessories. In contrast, when Douglas sees Stone for the first time she’s inviting in a big soft taupe roll neck jumper and loose fitting pale pants. There are similarities and differences, however, both ladies had a single defining and influential aspect of their look which was not clothes, but the pinned up blond hair copied by millions of women the world over.

If appearance is everything then so is location. Verhoeven chose Vertigo’s setting, San Francisco, purposefully for his film location where even the staircase at Curran’s apartment is modelled on the bell tower in Vertigo. He’s not the only filmmaker to have been influenced by Vertigo. That long list includes everyone from Brian De Palma to David Lynch. Curiously, Clint Eastwood’s 1983 instalment of the Dirty Harry franchise, Sudden Impact, contains nods to Hitchcock’s hypnotic thriller. Most noticeably the sweeping ocean shots, Sondra Locke’s flashback scenes along with Lalo Schifrin’s Herrmannesque music cleverly inserted anytime Sondra is on the screen.

The more you look for it the more you’ll see Hitchcock’s Vertigo pop up in the most unusual of places – and at the end of the day, Verhoven has openly admitted that Basic Instinct is his homage to this classic masterpiece.

I invite you to watch and see for yourself.

About Cherease Kingdon

Cherease Kingdon fell in love with movies at a very early age, back when you could still go to your local milk bar (Australia's version of a convenience store) to hire a video nasty before they were all banned. She was introduced to a variety of different genres and devoured everything she could get her hands on. With happy memories of sneaking out of bed to quietly sit behind the sofa watching whatever very "grow-up film" her parents deemed "unfit", Cherease dived into two early loves: horror films and made for TV movies. She also developed a morbid fascination with 90s erotic thrillers. Obsessed with collecting vintage movie novelisations, interested in subcultures and loving all things Giallo, Cherease has been researching movies in one way or another all her life - so why not put it to good use and start writing?

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